Talks stall on stricter sex-crime legislation

Maryland lawmakers are negotiating down to the wire on an overhaul of sex offender laws that they hope will be the hallmark of this year's General Assembly session, which ends Monday.

They arrived in Annapolis in January promising to improve a system universally acknowledged to be flawed. Weeks earlier, an 11-year-old girl was murdered on the Eastern Shore, and a registered sex offender was later charged in the capital case.

Delegates and senators have signed off on a few of some 80 proposed fixes, including lifetime supervision of violent sex offenders who have been released from prison and elimination of good-behavior credits for those still behind bars.

But they remain deadlocked on what victims' groups call some of the most significant proposed changes: Longer mandatory prison sentences for child molesters that Republicans have long sought; and federally required reforms to the state's publicly available sex offender registry that Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is seeking.

Some advocates are furious about the delays. They say lawmakers are "playing games" to appease one or two reluctant members instead of acting on important legislation that received near-unanimous approval in the Senate and House of Delegates — although in slightly different forms.

Negotiations have yielded little progress. On Saturday, key lawmakers said they still weren't planning to budge.

"It's very, very disheartening," said Joan Harris, a Catonsville resident and president of Citizens for Jessica's Law, which has worked for years to increase prison sentences for child predators.

"We just felt like this was the year," she said, because of the coming election and the "horrible, tragic" case of Sarah Foxwell, whose body was found on Christmas Day on the Eastern Shore after a search involving 2,000 volunteers. The man charged, Thomas J. Leggs Jr., had been convicted of sex offenses in Delaware and Maryland.

Lisae Jordan of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault said she is "very concerned" that the sex offender registry overhaul might not pass, calling it one of several "important victim bills still up in the air."

Proposed changes to the registry include, for the first time, adding the names of those who commit sexually motivated acts of indecent exposure or possess child pornography. People who list themselves as "homeless" on the registry also would have to provide more information.

Many of the registry revisions were designed in part to bring Maryland into compliance with the federal Adam Walsh Act, and help the state avoid cuts in federal public safety funding.

O'Malley identified strengthening sex offender laws as a priority this year, referring to the Sarah Foxwell case in several speeches. He put forward three measures, including lifetime supervision, reformation of a state sex offender advisory board, both of which have been approved, and registry changes.

The governor's office is confident his remaining sex offender legislation will be pushed through both the House of Delegates and Senate by Monday midnight.

"We expect people will be working diligently to reach final passage," said Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's legislative director, about the registry bill. "It's definitely on everyone's list of things to make sure don't fall through the cracks."

O'Malley supports longer prison sentences, saying "the highest priority of government is the public's safety, particularly the safety of our children," but has not personally pushed the legislation, as he has other sex offender reforms. The bills this year seek to expand Jessica's Law, signed into law in 2007, which increased mandatory minimums for first-degree rapists and first-degree sex offenders.

Earlier in the 90-day session, the House approved tripling the mandatory minimum prison sentence for those convicted of second-degree rape or second-degree sex offense of a child, to 15 years. Offenders often serve less than half of the current five-year minimum.

The Senate backs a longer minimum of 20 years. Both chambers agree those offenders should not be eligible for parole.

Harris said the mandatory 20-year provision for child molesters "has the most teeth" of any piece of sex offender legislation under consideration this year.

Neither the House nor the Senate had selected members of a negotiating team by Saturday evening, a sign that progress remained elusive. Still, it is not unusual for resolutions to be reached in the final moments of a legislative session.

Desperate for either measure to become law, Harris released a plea Saturday urging the Senate to adopt the House plan. But senators advanced their own, sponsored by Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Harford County Republican.

Acknowledging later that the House will not accept her plan, Jacobs vowed to ask her colleagues on Monday to accept the lower minimum sentence. She said she feels "pretty good that it'll pass," but noted "stranger things have happened" on the final day of the session.

Saturday's session saw the Senate add one more complication to the sex offender registry legislation, further complicating its passage at a time when the House already has objected to what the Senate wants to do.

Sen. Richard F. Colburn, an Eastern Shore Republican, proposed a system to mark the driver's licenses of registered sex offenders so that law enforcement officers could more easily identify them. All but one senator — Baltimore Democrat Lisa A. Gladden, a public defender — voted for it.

Montgomery County Democrat Kathleen M. Dumais, the lead House negotiator working on the registry-overhaul proposal, said she can't imagine agreeing to that.

She is also resisting another Senate amendment to the registration bill, which would allow prosecutors to include prior sex offense convictions as evidence in new cases.

The idea came from Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Some senators who have worked for years to toughen sex offender laws, only to see them rejected by the attorney-heavy House Judiciary Committee, saw this year's focus on reforms as a rare opportunity to force the hand of delegates.

Still, some lawmakers and advocates say they are already pleased with the sex offender reforms that are headed for O'Malley's signature. Lawmakers in both chambers have given final approval to O'Malley's proposal to put the most violent and repeat sex offenders on "lifetime supervision" when they are released from prison, though Republicans objected to calling the supervision "lifetime" because offenders can seek an end to it after five years.

Bryce, O'Malley's legislative director, called that measure a critical step, saying "when we do have people under active supervision, they are much less likely to offend again."

Both chambers also agreed upon a plan put forward by Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, that eliminates good-behavior credits for those same categories of sex offenders.

And another measure that is headed for O'Malley's signature speaks directly to the Sarah Foxwell case. Advanced by Del. Norman H. Conway, an Eastern Shore Democrat, it aims to encourage friends and neighbors to report to the police when they believe a child is spending time with a registered sex offender. Sarah's aunt, and guardian, had dated Leggs, the man accused of her murder.

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